Maybe it was the surprising spring warmth that had the audience out in droves signifying the end of winter’s hibernation, or perhaps it was the irresistible lure of rich, Romantic Russian melodies of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. Whatever the cause there was not a free seat to be seen in the whole auditorium. And nor were they disappointed by music-making of such passion and fire.

Nathalie Stutzmann
© Simon Fowler

The programming was simplicity itself: one lush Romantic piano concerto in the first half – tick; one passionate, mellifluous symphony in the second – check. It was the musical equivalent of two helpings of pudding, and who doesn’t want double pudding? If that wasn’t enough to sell it, add in a turbo-charged, young Russian pianist, Vyacheslav Gryaznov (who presumably does Godowsky’s études before breakfast just as a warm up) and the ever-thoughtful, profound musicianship of our very own principal guest conductor, Nathalie Stutzmann and you have a night to remember.

From the finely graded crescendo of the opening chords that opens Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 Gryaznov impressed with the extensive sound world that he created. He dug deep into the keys to produce deep sepulchre bass notes which underpinned a multitude of ornamental notes while his ethereal pianissimos carried away to the back, projecting over the orchestra. There were times, particularly in the faster sections in the first movement, where he raced off slightly ahead of the orchestra, leaving Stutzmann and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra playing catch up. In this regard he reminded me somewhat of the young Horowitz – with blindingly fast double octaves, scintillating finger-work and the sheer white-knuckle excitement he brought to so many passages. The ending of the first movement was utterly explosive, Gryaznov keeping us (and the NSO) on the edge of our seats with an adrenaline-filled accelerando.

It wasn’t all about speed though. Gryaznov could do reflective too when desired. There was a wistfulness to the second subject that was most arresting and there was some delightfully dreamy moments in C major after the climax of the first movement. The ravishing, warm comforting sound in the Adagio sostenuto coupled with intense strings playing in a high register had all the heart-warming feeling of falling in love. The NSO provided wonderful support throughout, nimbly following the quicksilver soloist. The string section in the opening of the first movement produced a rich, Romantic sound like dark melted chocolate while the flute and clarinet coaxed the delicate tendrils of their melody in the second movement with great grace and elegance.

The finale was a real tour de force. Starting with tremendous rhythmic vitality, Stutzmann highlighted some incredible antiphonal exchanges between soloist and orchestra, while there was both mischief and menace to the fugue as the excitement built to the climax. The big theme itself was nothing short of transcendental: a huge oceanic swell of sound that swept us along with emotions that cannot be put into words. And weren’t we glad to be there. An instant and unanimous standing ovation followed.  

Stutzmann took the huge, powerful, sustained chords that open Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 in an arrestingly slow manner, imbuing each beat with fateful intensity. Here the gentler moments were lovingly phrased too, coming as soothing waves of sound. In the Allegro proper of the first movement, Stutzmann propelled the jagged rhythm of the music forward with incisive urgency before building to the climax where there was a pent up release of furious semiquavers. What never ceases to impress me with Stutzmann at the helm is her passionate attachment to the music as she urges every musician to give of their best. And what a tremendous effect. The slow down at the end of this movement was more pronounced than I have ever heard on any recording but beautiful and striking as a result.

In the Andante sostenuto Stutzmann allowed the music to breathe and then gently move the music forward when needed while there was a vernal freshness to third movement with its sweet piping from the woodwind. The grave roll of the timpani seem to presage something sinister at the start of the finale while the slow and steady pizzicato was most effective at maintaining the tension. The first statement of the main theme was like a light coming in times of dark despair. Here Stutzmann and the NSO imbued it with a spiritual joy, a hymn that honoured Beethoven’s legacy. In the muscular coda which concludes the work, Stutzmann coaxed ever more fervour and energy from the NSO making this a rendition of thrilling intensity.